Laura Benton: A Portrait of a Teacher as a BLTN Fellow

May 14th, 2014 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Bringing it Back, Issue, Spring 2014
BentonFaceLaura Benton
English Teacher
Woodford County High School, Versailles, KY
BLSE 2013, funded by the C. E. and S. Foundation

In this interview conducted near the end of her first year as a Bread Loaf Teacher Network / C. E. & S Foundation Fellow, Laura Benton of Versailles, Kentucky reflects on how one summer at Bread Loaf continues to inspire and transform her teaching.

TM: Could you describe how your first summer at Bread Loaf’s Vermont campus has influenced your teaching back home, at Woodford County High School?

LB: The seven-week Bread Loaf experience has catapulted me through the year, keeping my mind fresh with inspiration. At Bread Loaf, I delved deeply into both pedagogy and literature and came home energized and filled with ways to diversify and enrich my curriculum. Professor Bicks’s Remeber Me course inspired me to rearrange my Shakespeare units to be more interactive. I flipped the classroom to emphasize student-run discussions over lecture. I used Professor Bicks’s class as a model to create an atmosphere for students to discover the text on their own and to celebrate their individual interpretations. On discussion days, students sit in the Bread Loaf circle, and everyone is equal before the text. I attribute the surge in interest my students now have for Shakespeare to my allowing them to guide their own learning. I am plan to use Professor Bicks’s “off stage scene” assignment towards the end of the trimester. I’ll ask students to imagine an “off stage scene” missing from the original text and then research an element of their imagined scene. The project will culminate with a dramatic interpretation or a video project presentation. To complete this assignment at Bread Loaf required me to truly understand the existing text and to make informed choices for a project. I anticipate the same being true for my students, and I look forward to their unique interpretations. I acquired a variety of strategies from Professor Baca’s Translingual Pedagogies. A creative nonfiction essay added to my curriculum gives students an opportunity to write literacy autobiographies and manifestos. Students choose between a traditional hourglass essay and an “Anzaldua-inspired” style piece that encourages them to be more creative, and utilize non-linear, less formal writing techniques. Students also submit a multimedia piece that provides a new lens for viewing their writing. Both the literacy autobiography and the manifesto assignments had fantastic results, impelling students to be their authentic selves, rather than taking the easy way out. The combination provided an opportunity for students to focus on product creation rather than test scores. The Bread Loaf altered my teaching repertoire. I promote discussion, emphasize product-based learning, and encourage authentic self-discovery. At Bread Loaf, I learned how to create a literary environment that energizes the classroom and allows students to express their ideas. I look forward to another fantastic summer in Vermont.

TM: Traditionally, part of a Bread Loaf fellow’s summer work is to plan year-round collaborations with colleagues. Could you describe some of the collaborative work that has grown out of your first Bread Loaf summer?

LB: This year I worked with Chris McCurry on my first BLTN Collaborative Project. We put together a group of 21 diverse students to participate in a poetry showcase. We pooled our students’ talents and points of view to create a holistic performance for the school and community. We originally modeled the project after the national Poetry Out Loud program and then tailored it to fit our students’ needs and desires. The students selected the theme and performance pieces. They decided the order of the poems and designed the program to represent a day in the life of the average high schooler. Students designed the set and selected props and costumes. The performance was an enormous success with over 100 community members in attendance. In addition to the performance, my Creative Writing Two class created an ibook to serve as a retrospective and supplemental text of the performance. Students “reincarnated” a poem from the performance in their own words. They exercised creative freedom, using the original poem as a starting point for a more modern, individualized writing piece. The “reincarnations” were arranged in the ibook next to pictures of students who performed the original poem for the showcase. This enables a conversation among published poetry, writers, and performers. The ibook also contains panoramas, links, videos, and original artwork. These elements combined create an interactive experience for the reader. The ibook will be accessible through our blog. By June, interested readers will also be able to retrieve a copy through the ibooks Store (for iPad only) and the Woodford County High School English page. We will also post a PDF version. The collaboration was tremendously successful for both Woodford and Lafayette students. They envisioned, designed, performed, wrote, and created. They exceeded our expectations on every level.

An excerpt from Laura Benton and Chris McCurry’s students’ poetry performance, “What Doesn’t Resemble Me is More Beautiful”…

TM: Very often, summer study, conversation, and collaboration among members of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network lead to innovative opportunities for student expression with new media. You mentioned the iBook component of the poetry festival. Has your Bread Loaf work inspired other innovations with technology?

LB: Digital literacy and media are a big part of what I brought back from Bread Loaf. I have thought about my Bread Loaf experience and how to recreate that experience at home. Conversations in the Inn with other students gave me a myriad of ideas for the coming school year to transform the classes that I teach. The transformation has been most apparent in my Shakespeare and personal narrative units. My students have successfully used iMovie, Prezi and Google Drive in Julius Caesar projects. My curriculum now contains a personal manifesto assignment, a result of Professor Baca’s class. Students first write their manifestos in a traditional style. Once the writing portion is complete, they illustrate a selection from their piece using Mozilla Popcorn Maker, a program that allows them to mix text, video clips, music, and images together as a cohesive product. Through the One to One program in my school, every student has his or her own iPad, so I’ve been very active in refining digital media and literacy strategies. I currently use Google Drive in the classroom on a daily basis to study my students’ composition processes. Students paperlessly share work with each other and with me. I observe their real-time writing and respond via comments. The revision history feature allows me to get a sense of a student’s individual writing process. This year I started using the Google Cultural Institute website with its tours of world wonders, museums and historic moments. I add this site to my units whenever possible to enrich student experience through visual and interactive media. My school has a digital classroom for each course. This year I switched the online platforms from Moodle to Schoology.com, a free site that allows teachers to set up classrooms, upload documents, assignments, quizzes and videos. Schoology is a great resource for keeping unit documents together and tracking student progress via exit slips or quizzes. I can set up discussion threads and provide video feedback for struggling readers. All three programs—Google Drive, Google Cultural Institute, and Schoology—have helped with Bread Loaf-inspired assignments. Google Drive allowed students to effectively collaborate on their manifestoes by commenting directly on the digital document and then sharing. Students unable to attend the Poetry Showcase watched the video at home and arrived at school with feedback and opinions. Using these technologies to make my classroom more interactive is one of the many ways Bread Loaf has immediately impacted my teaching. More than anything else, I have simply enjoyed bringing Bread Loaf-inspired techniques back to my students. At BLTN meetings last summer, Professor Lunsford talked about the impact of digital media. The manifestos made me realize that our kids really do live in the “remix culture” she references. This is new, wild, and a bit scary, but also a fantastic way for students to think critically about their world and create collaborative and authentic work that speaks to their individual voices.

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Note: Interactive features are only available on the iBooks app.

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